Law and literature. The American Civil War

Caleb Smith

The Oracle and the Curse : A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2013, 288 pp.

ISBN: 9780674073081

Condemned to hang after his raid on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown prophesied that the crimes of a slave-holding land would be purged away only with blood. A study of omens, maledictions, and inspired invocations, The Oracle and the Curse examines how utterances such as Brown’s shaped American literature between the Revolution and the Civil War.

In nineteenth-century criminal trials, judges played the role of law’s living oracles, but offenders were also given an opportunity to address the public. When the accused began to turn the tables on their judges, they did so not through rational arguments but by calling down a divine retribution. Widely circulated in newspapers and pamphlets, these curses appeared to channel an otherworldly power, condemning an unjust legal system and summoning readers to the side of righteousness.

Exploring the modes of address that communicated the authority of law and the dictates of conscience in antebellum America’s court of public opinion, Caleb Smith offers a new poetics of justice which assesses the nonrational influence that these printed confessions, trial reports, and martyr narratives exerted on their first audiences. Smith shows how writers portrayed struggles for justice as clashes between human law and higher authority, giving voice to a moral protest that transformed American literature.


Introduction: The Poetics of Justice

1. Oracles of Law

2. Oracles of God

3. Blasphemy “At the Court of Hell”

4. Evil Speaking, “A Bridle for the Unbridled Tongue”

5. The Curse of Slavery

6. Words of Fire

Epilogue: The Curse at Sea




Caleb Smith is Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University


Creo que un buen complemento bibliográfico resultará, sin duda, la aún reciente edición documental sobre la acción de John Brown y el alcance que su insurrección tuvo en la historia americana del abolicionismo. Reseño aquí su noticia.


The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid

John Stauffer & Zoe Trodd (eds.)

Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2012, iix, 570 pp.

ISBN 9780674048850

When John Brown led twenty-one men in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, he envisioned a biblical uprising of millions of armed bondsmen, thus ridding the nation of the scourge of slavery. The insurrection did not happen, and Brown and the other surviving raiders were quickly captured and executed. This landmark anthology, which collects contemporary speeches, letters, newspaper articles, journals, poems, and songs, demonstrates that Brown’s actions nonetheless altered the course of American history.

John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd have assembled an impressive and wide-ranging collection of responses to Brown’s raid: Brown’s own words, northern and southern reactions, international commentary, and reflections from the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Represented here are all the figures one would expect to see (Lincoln, Thoreau, Frederick Douglass), many surprises (John Wilkes Booth, Karl Marx, Giuseppe Garibaldi), as well as free and enslaved blacks and white citizens. The result is a book that views Brown from multiple vantage points.

John Stauffer is Chair of History of American Civilization and Professor of English and Professor of African & African American Studies at Harvard University, and the author of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (Twelve, New York, 2008, xiv, 432 p. : ill. ISBN: 9780446580090)

Zoe Trodd is Professor of American Literature at the University of Nottingham

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